Its not easy building a monument on the National Mall. And yet despite the intentionally time-consuming, necessarily frictional process, construction of a 4-acre monument to Martin Luther King Jr. is now, finally underway on the Mall's Tidal Basin.
After decades of preparation, and a groundbreaking back in 2006, the achievement may seem at once inevitable (3 ex-Presidents have lent their support, and corporate sponsors read like a Forbes 500 list), yet so long in conception that DC residents could be forgiven for having not noticed. Hidden from Independence Avenue by a nondescript beige wall, what began 3 or 4 decades ago, depending on who you ask, is at last technically under construction, as contractors begin to place 300 concrete pilings - Venice style - into the silty marsh of the Mall. The pilings will ready the site - a river, after all, until the late 19th century - to accept what will effectively be a large landscape project supporting oblong granite memorials to the civil rights leader.
Once completed - possibly by next summer - the park-like memorial will wrap around the northwest corner of the Tidal Basin, opposite and viewable from the Jefferson Memorial.
Visitors will enter from the northwest edge, near Independence Avenue, by way of a new walkway past the World War I Memorial to better connect the King Memorial to the Mall - a necessity for an area that serves as DC's main attractant but fails to provide for those who show up by car. No designated parking will be added.
Visually, visitors will be greeted by one of the monument's principal symbols - the "mountains of despair," a literal embodiment to a reference in King's "I Have a Dream" speech. The twin granite slabs will frame the entry, two 30-foot sentinels 12 feet apart, appearing to have been sliced and parted, bearing inscriptions from the 1963 speech with themes of justice and hope. Again emulating the civil rights struggle, despair will lead to a path beyond, and having passed through it emerges the view of a single stone, the "stone of hope," appearing as if cleaved from - but beyond - the struggle. Harry Johnson, President and CEO of the Martin Luther King Memorial Foundation, takes up the vision of the entrance: "It will look like a mountain that's been split in two. Outside is rough, simulating the roughness of the civil rights movement. You still have not seen Dr. King until you get closer to the Jefferson. It will appear as though the stone of hope will have been cut from the mountain of despair. [King] will be carved on that stone." In fact the granite, quarried in China, is too big to ship in tact, and will be cut into sections and reassembled on site. Lei Yixin, a Chinese sculptor, designed the statue.
Having crossed the memorial to the 28-foot sculpture of King carved into the granite, who stares back at the entrance, arms folded, the visitor will be surrounded by 700 feet of arcing inscription wall that peaks at the entrance at 12 feet in height, decrescendoing down to two feet at the ends, which bow toward the Tidal Basin. Selected quotes will be etched into the surface, which in its first design was intended to flow with water during the summer months, a feature removed when the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) determined it would interfere with visitors' ability to read the quotes.
Set just behind the arcing wall are 24 large, raised semicircular niches, each designed to "commemorate the contribution of the many individuals that gave their lives in different ways to the civil rights movement." Each will allow a private, reflective space dedicated to individuals that died in the civil rights struggle; some will be left blank "in deference to the unfinished nature of the movement."
Hundreds of trees will be "randomly massed" throughout the exhibit, with evergreen Magnolias along the perimeter, Oaks tracing the arc of the stone exhibit, and Cherry trees weaving into the Cherries that now dominate the circumference of the basin. According to Johnson, the Foundation, which has been responsible for the design and construction of the memorial, will add another 200 cherry trees along the tidal basin. Despite the addition to the canopy Johnson says it "will be very visible from the Jefferson Memorial, you will be able to see Dr. King and the memorial." None of the current Cherries will be removed.
The project to build the memorial has been a separate struggle worthy of its own narrative. The official website dates its inception at 1984 (Wikipedia brings it back to 1968), when Alpha Phi Alpha, a fraternity to which King belonged, first proposed a memorial on the National Mall. After much lobbying and rallying, President Clinton signed legislation authorizing the memorial in 1996. The Foundation was formally organized in 1998, and fundraising began in earnest. Unprecedented corporate support (General Motors eventually gave $10m, Tommy Hilfiger gave $5m, and thousands of other corporations have made contributions), gave the tribute momentum, and the development process its acme. In 1998 the National Capitol Planning Commission (NCPC) approved a site at Constitution Gardens.
But in 1999, the CFA, which has authority to approve every element of any memorial, voted against the eastern end of Constitution Gardens as a site, contradicting NCPC's approval, and later that year the two commissions approved the Foundation's request to move the site to the Tidal Basin. In 2000, the Foundation reviewed more than 900 submissions for the design of the memorial, and later that year selected ROMA, a San Francisco-based design firm for its concept of the memorial park. In 2004, Devrouax and Purnell, a DC-based architecture firm, was picked to carry out the task. Devrouax had worked for the city on almost every high-visibility project - projects like Nationals Stadium, Ronald Reagan Airport, the new Convention Center, and the African American Civil War Memorial. According to Marshall Purnell, a principal at Devrouax, he suggested that his firm and ROMA for a joint venture to keep ROMA actively in the process of implementing its design.
While work got underway, the relationship between the Foundation and the Devrouax did not survive the project . "We continued to submit designs, but at some point we fell out of favor with the Foundation" said Purnell. "We were pretty deep into the process by that point, about 65-70% finished with the construction designs and documents." No one involved wants to discuss why the Foundation chose to remove them, and Purnell will not cast aspersions, saying only that "it got sort of ugly. The contract was terminated."
Up until that point the memorial's construction seemed imminent. Congress had just donated $10,000,000 in matching funds, and a groundbreaking had been scheduled for 2006, but other problems beset the project. Fundraising efforts were complicated by King's family, which demanded royalties from money raised using King's name and image in marketing for the memorial. Some supporters protested that a black sculptor had not been chosen, and others decried the choice of Chinese granite, noting that the use of Chinese workers, who are poorly paid and treated, was not respectful of their own civil rights struggle.
With funding lagging, a new design team did not begin until the summer of 2007, when the Foundation selected McKissack and McKissack, Turner Construction, Beltsville-based Gilford Corporation, and Tompkins Builders (now owned by Turner). According to Lisa Anders, Senior Project Manager at McKissack, the engineering firm was chosen because they have "done work on the Mall, and worked on Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, and we are a minority CM and architecture group, so we bring that to the project."
In 2008 the Commission of Fine Arts asked for a reduction in the size of King's statue and the stone of hope, stating that "the statue design is difficult to evaluate because such colossal human sculptures are rarely created in modern times...the recent imagery of such sculptures includes television broadcasts of these statues being pulled down in other countries, a comparison that would be harmful to the success of this memorial." Commissioners commented that only statues meant to be viewed from a distance were now built so big (both Lincoln and Jefferson nearby likenesses are smaller), and created the suggestion "of a colossal statue rather than a depiction of an actual man." The Commission also disagreed with the heavy use of bollards, and the resulting shift in perimeter security to a more natural barrier slowed the project by up to a year.
Despite the complications, work now appears to be in its last phase. With $107m of the projected $120m project already raised, the National Park Service issued construction permits last October, and on December 28th of 2009 initial site prep began on the site, which should wrap up in a little more than a year. Says Purnell of the original design-build team "I would just like to see the Memorial built." It now seems certain he will get his wish.
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